The title, I'm still toying with. I'll do an entire post just on titles. They are that difficult.
This took the help of a talented group of writers and an amazing professor to make me pick this back up again. What nobody initially talked to me about, after publishing my first 120k word e-book, is the fatigue. The fight to do it all over again. These people helped me, like guides who walked with me on a mountain whose path has long fallen apart, so this is also a thank you to them.
Because, really, once you have the beginning, once you are ready to walk that road, the rest comes easier. Not EASY. Just easier.
So here it is, the beginning. Again.
For the Binding: Children of Dire Wolf: Book Two
Anu carefully watched the two human men holding the girl. He’d long lost his left eye, but was no less keen for it, even at his age.
She was no more than eleven or twelve, the age his son was. And she’d been drugged, listlessly rolling her head in wrong directions and only opening her eyes sometimes, but it was enough to tell that she was a werewolf.
She had long and thick hair that went from brown roots to snow white at the tips. A werewolf’s human hair was important, an extension of them, and either this child had lost her parents, or she’d been taken from her family long ago. The strands were scattered, tangled and stuck across her face with sweat. Her eyes were sand colored, but lined with veins that appeared to pump fool’s gold colored shimmers around her pupils. A hybrid. A coyote descendant. Far closer to extinction than even his own people. Too rare and valuable to harm. Her clothes were tattered and dirty, save for a thick black ribbon around her neck.
The larger human male, bald and muscular, passed a folder into the waiting hand of an old female werewolf: -the one who’d probably tricked and drugged the child. Her face was covered by a hooded jacket and a scarf over her mouth, but her nature was unmistakable. As if she sensed what was coming, she disappeared so quickly Anu almost missed it.
“I can’t hold her like this, where do you want to do it?” the shorter human bearing most of the weight of the girl asked. He was sweating even in the cold morning. A werewolf, even a small one, was double the weight of a human, and extremely tall. And this man could barely control the rag-doll dead weight of her. “The hell with this, just do it here before she comes to and we have a different problem.” He said. “As soon as she wakes up, it will, too.”
“You nuts? Out in the open?” His partner said, putting a cap on his naked head.
“Nobody is out here. Just be another body in the street.”
“Looking like this? Ahh…All right, all right,” He pulled out a large hunting knife.
“God, just let me lay her on the ground, I can’t do this,” The human holding the child put her gently in the street, a strange act of kindness in the moment all things considered.
Anu moved from his hiding spot around the corner, shifting form as he did. As a black wolf, he crushed his massive jaws around the arm of the man holding the knife- and it dropped onto the icy street with the loudest clang.
The other was running, just as well, thought Anu.
“Please, we have to, you don’t understand what she is! What she’s done! You stupid son of a bitch,” the large man who’d held the girl now held his arm together, panting through the pain.
“Next time, it will be your life,” Speaking human in a wolf’s body was not easy, the accent was thick through the teeth, but just doing it was a way to catch them off guard.
Anu sniffed the girl’s breath, coming out in slight puffs. It smelled slightly of menthol, they’d probably given her some cheap sedative to make killing her easier. It was wearing off quickly, the girl was trying to sit up now, trying to back away.
Anu turned to face the man, and saw that his shadow looked wrong in the daylight, wrong as it crept through his own form, and blew it apart with its hands. The blood and sinew and some of the untouched organs hit the ground. Then his body followed.
The shadow was still standing, and it wasn’t ever the shadow of a person. A long slender dog’s head on a human shape, but not human at all. More than thirty feet away, at the edge of the abandoned snowy park, was the body of the other man swimming in dark red pools that were turning to slush. Anu covered the girl with a protective stance, his teeth bared. But the shadow wasn’t moving. Calmly, it turned up its palms. It walked that way, walked toward them even as Anu opened his mouth, his growl deafening, it paid no mind as it walked into the shadow of the coyote girl and disappeared into that child shaped darkness on the street.
The child had her face to the icy ground, covering her eyes.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m going to help you.” Anu said.
“I can’t look. If I ever look at it, it will kill me.” She whispered.
Sometimes knowing he was asleep didn’t help. Taisho stood before him, his soul mate, long dead. She was a butchered Cerberus, her white wolf form stitched to two dog heads, both of which were turned inside out. She bared beautiful fangs, but blood poured out of her gums, sometimes gluing her jaws together. Her backbone was partially sticking out of her skin.
Worse than any of this was that she stood in front of the god virus. Stood in front of that human body he’d stolen from a young man like she was a guard dog, a pet for a sentient sickness that she’d given her life to stop from eating the world alive.
Usually this is when he awakened. She wasn’t always this kind of monster in his dreams, but she was always mangled. And Blight, the god virus, was always pristine in that dead shell, his skin unblemished, his eyes large and deadly red, and his sinewy tentacles that flowed from his back were fat and pulsing, spread around him like wings from absolute hell.
Anu dropped to his knees, and though repulsed, though the air was knocked from his lungs at the sight of it all, he stretched out his arms for her.
Anything that was her.
He missed her so much.
“She’s mine. The boy, too. He is mine.” Blight said.
You’re wrong Anu thought. But he couldn’t say it. Speaking was forbidden here. Always.
“None of this ever belonged to you.” The atrocity was able to speak, to shout anything he wanted. “You created him, but I formed him. And the boy is mine, Anu."
You’re the worst liar, Anu thought. Still on his knees, he opened his arms for Taisho still, stretching them until it hurt to get them closer to her.
And this time, she walked into them. Anu closed his arms around Taisho. Her sticky blood coated fur became her long, clean white hair again. In her human form, she appeared unscathed. But was her skin less ruddy? Less the color of the earth and more like that of a spirit? Maybe he was remembering it wrong. But he’d never forgotten what it felt like to hold her. He looked down into her eyes, once more the bright yellow they’d been before she was infected.
She whispered something. He had a hard time understanding it.
Don’t let him.
It didn’t make any sense.
He must have heard her wrong. He put his lips to her warm forehead.
“Don’t let him.” She said, more clearly now.
Anu awoke. It was a jolting wake, and as his sense readjusted out of the dream world, he knew why. A change in the air, the sound of something unseen and nearly soundless moving through the evening. Someone was in the garden.
He rose and went to the large window of his room overlooking the large rows of his garden, the night was moonless and bruised, but even without the light he could see the deeper darkness of that thing. The dog-faced shadow, Little Ghost’s bizarre guardian. It paced through the plants and trees slowly, and then stopped to raise its palms to the stars.
It normally only appeared when Little Ghost was near death. But on nights when he dreamed of Taisho, when he dreamed of Blight, the thing would sometimes appear out, aimlessly walking or doing something strange independent of its bond with the girl. But Anu had never seen it open its arms out like it wanted something before.
It looked like it was silently begging. Trying to return to the star stuff it had probably dripped out of.
The shadow suddenly looked directly at Anu. Then began to trace the path that led back into the house, presumably to return to the shadow of Little Ghost.
Anu felt every hair on his human body stand on end. Sleep felt like a thing that shouldn’t return again, not after all of this. He sat on his plush bed and began to put his long black hair into a traditional rope braid. He put on modern clothing, all gifts, because today he’d be out in the crowds. It was the Heartsease, the annual festival held on the anniversary of the day he and Taisho defeated Blight.
And today he would get to see his son again.
Rain looked so much taller, healthier in the face, with his mother’s high cheekbones and her yellow eyes. A loose strand of soft coal colored hair stuck out of his bindings and was driven across his face every time the breeze caught them. His hair was one of the only things Anu had passed to his son.
He sighed, he couldn’t run to hold him. Not yet. Anu used sign language, “I’ve missed you (so) much, more than (the) moon.”
Rain gestured to his father with nimble fingers, “You, too. So much.”
Rain’s mother, Anu’s mate, had been infected with Blight’s virus during her pregnancy. His human and werewolf form suffered for it, and he wore a hood with layers of bindings and bandages underneath to keep his permanently shifted wolf ears out of sight. Rain’s back always had to be covered, for on the left side a long tendril-mark, eerily like Blight’s tentacle wings, was red and raised over his skin. Anu had never seen his son in his wolf form, but the notes sent over the years from his care-givers and tutors were not encouraging.
But right now, he was all youth and beauty and smiling. And he was here.
It was hard to keep from embracing, but it could not happen here, right now in the open air of the Maraborg docks. A sea and trade town years ago, it was now only occupied during the festival.
“You are more (your) mother, each time (I) see you. Are (you) well? You look it.” Anu signed. Rain nodded yes to him, and his grin was more convincing than his nod, so Anu took that.
Rain had to be taught sign language in his wolf dialect from birth. The notes from his instructors often said that he still had trouble reacting to and understanding everything said with his bindings on. Rain was said to show great skill in lip reading, but it seemed to be most comfortable for him to use signs. Bainbridge, also looking completely grown and all smiles, joined Rain after paying the ferryman. The boy offered Anu his hand, a bizarrely human thing to do, but his love for the young man was such that he shook it and smiled. Bainbridge was very much human, except for his shocking violet hair dye, and his passion. He’d been raised alongside his son as a guardian and trusted friend.
Long ago, those roles would have been reversed.
“Was the journey here hard?” Anu spoke to Bainbridge.
“The boat ride was a lot of fun,” Rain answered, a little too loudly since his hearing was muffled.
“Yes, we had to drown someone,” Bainbridge said, “But just one.”
“If you have to drown more than one, you did the first one wrong,” Rain said.
“Harbingers?” Anu signed, and his son nodded. Over sixty years ago, before Anu was born, humans discovered that the people walking alongside them in daily life weren’t necessarily people. An extraordinary amount of effort nearly put werewolves into extinction. Harbingers were humans still loyal to those archaic bias, though they were exceptions and not the rule.
The creaking thuds became frequent as more boats docked into the Maraborg port. It was becoming crowded. Anu needed to introduce Rain to the girl quickly. He motioned for her to approach from where she was waiting. Rain’s eyes were wide, “Is this your guardian?” he asked his father out loud, “She’s too young!” The girl was long and tall and wide and intimidating. Her deep brown hair fell down to her waist, with the last foot of it still shockingly white. Her skin was dark and her eyes were beige, outlined on the bottom lid with thick black.
“No. She is for you.” Anu said.
“Trading flesh is a human thing,” Rain said.
“Be respectful. She can keep you safe, safer than I ever could.”
Rain stepped closer to her. She avoided eye contact.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Little Ghost. “She said. Rain made a face, and asked his father if it was correct in sign language. None called a werewolf a ghost. For any reason. Implying one's presence was negligible or incomplete was a blatant insult.
“It’s okay,” Anu signed, “That (is) her name, she chose (to) keep.”
“Weird.” Rain signed. Bainbridge smiled, he probably knew at least that much signing.
“Do you want to be here, here right now?” Rain asked.
“Yes.” she lifted her eyes and Rain ducked first from side to side, and then below her to see the pyrite shining colors running in her sandy irises.
“That’s different.” Bainbridge said.
“Definitely.” Rain said. “Weird!” He signed again to Anu, more aggressive with his finger work this time.
“We should move to the Maraborg church now, if you intend to see it, otherwise the crowds will overwhelm us.” Anu said. He had a feeling Rain would dismiss the girl as soon as he returned to his camp. But he knew that was always a risk. Still, the young ones all followed together as they went further into the heart of the old city.
Paper lights of pink and red were threaded through crumbling buildings as if they sewed them together, and they became thicker and more prosperous the further they went.
Anu had never allowed Rain to attend the Heartsease before, had instructed those caring for him to never bring him ashore here. Maraborg was where Taisho was raised, and where she died. Anu himself rarely came back here. Taisho’s body was beneath the Royal Purple Smoke Tree of his garden, one of the rarest trees able to grow in the somewhat decimated soils, and he went there to visit with her. Anu had no use for the assault of memories that existed here.
He fell back to walk with his son, watched him and every lithe step he took, every time his yellow eyes stared off to drink in the scenery. There had been so many years of hiding, of training, or learning-years Anu hadn’t been able to even glimpse for fear of endangering his only child. They’d taken him, the werewolves who agreed to help, as a pink squirming newborn, to the safety of anonymity. Where no one would blame or question the son of the first infected werewolf.
A siren blasted, settling a deep ache into Anu’s ears. The people and wolves walking beside them fished out black filtering masks and strapped them on their faces.
“Shit, I think I dropped mine,” Rain said.
“It fell in the water during the fight, I’m sorry, I didn’t think we’d need it.” Bainbridge said.
The sirens were used to alert to the presence of the spores that caused the Red Fever. There wasn’t a cure, and the survival rate was very low. But it had been discovered that most of the spores were present near hives of Afflicted.
Little Ghost put her mask in Rain’s hand, but he passed it back to her.
“No. Here,” Anu snapped the black filtration mask over his son’s face. Rain didn’t fight him, but instead began working with Bainbridge wordlessly to tear off an old cloth they kept in their pack, and a bootlace to make a mock cover.
“It’s not the best, but better than nothing,” Bainbridge said, snapping his into place and then letting Rain check the fitting. Humans had the highest death toll so far from Red Fever.
“I smell them,” Rain signed. It was there, underneath the smells of the busy people and their packed food, and the burning candles; beneath it all the sudden sugary rot of dead flesh. Afflicted, the lost human puppets of the god virus’s infection, the visible damage of what Blight could do to a person. They gathered together still, like they did when their master was alive. Every now and then, one would be self-aware, but most of them were language-less, occasionally violent shells. The humans wanted them dead, and the existing government had trouble exterminating them all without causing more red fever. If their bodies were decaying or burnt, bleeding or falling apart, then they were leaking massive amounts of spores into the air. The protocol for handling bodies was so immense Anu had trouble believing it was followed, and most of the jobs dealing with these living corpses fell to werewolves, as did anything too frightening for ordinary people.
A young werewolf male in a white government medic uniform stopped in front of them. “Routine checks, I’m sure you understand,” he said, waiving an eye scanner over Anu. A red light, a positive scan for the film in place over the retinae of a werewolf that had been in contact with Blight-and was therefore infected. The werewolf worker sighed, recalibrated the machine and then moved to Rain, who loosened the bindings on his ears. Masks made lip reading impossible, and he needed to be able to speak and listen without attracting extra attention.
“You can’t dose him. Not with a hive nearby.” Anu said.
“Sir…ah,” the hesitation, it was a good sign. He didn’t want to administer the drug to his own kind, “I have two positive scans and now have to administer two doses of Praxis to prevent the changing of infected wolves.” He then began to sign, somewhat clumsily, “I (will) have to double someone’s medicine. At your age, (this is) risky.”
“Dad, don’t do this,” Rain signed, but Anu waived both sets of concerns away and offered his arm. The first injection was a mild sting, and the second didn’t hurt until it moved within his veins, a dizzying amount of fire coursing through his body.
“Thank you for your compliance. And your service. Safe night, brothers,” The werewolf medic moved on. He skipped Bainbridge and tested Little Ghost, who got the same blink of red positive reading, but took her dose without Anu intervening. He didn’t explain to Rain that it was because in any form, Little Ghost would never be helpless. There was no explaining that, his son would have to witness it, as he did, to understand. Anu watched the medic move further into the crowd, making sure he simply continued on to do his job rather than report the missed dosing.
“You’ll kill yourself. I’ve taken Praxis before, and it would have been fine.” Rain was talking normally, but the hiss between his words was incredibly angry.
Anu reach into a pocket of his robe and pulled out three necklaces. One a long elegant locket, the other dented and scratched dog tags, the last a tarnished rosary, and as he went to place them over Rain’s head, his son grabbed his arm. Rain fished them with his free hand, still angry until he opened the locket. An old colorless photograph of Taisho’s beautiful werewolf mother and her once human father. The tags were from Taisho’s best friend, nearly killed in battle. And the rosary, from the priest who had raised her. Rain looked like he couldn’t swallow.
“She wore these all the time. Even as she carried you,” Anu said. He put his hand on his son’s shoulder and held it there. “She would want you to have these. I know it. Someday soon, maybe I can take you home, to the tree she is buried under. It’s beautiful in the Summer. It lights up the whole garden.” Rain didn’t say anything back, didn’t sign anything for a long time. A blank expression crossed him and sat there, and Anu wondered if this was him trying to contain the emotional wave. Stoicism was still in fashion in the world of wolves, the ability to fight back the thoughts and tears that would drive most mad was highly prized. Anu was so proud of him. It hurt so badly to be proud of him, too. He’d missed the navigation to this man his child had become. He’d missed the journey, and had but letters and photographs and brief consultations of video.
With no warning or betrayal of intent Rain suddenly wrapped his arms around Anu. He breathed in his son’s hair and noticed that he smelled the same as he had the day he was born. Like a forest being bathed in sunlight. When Rain finally ended the hug, it was Anu who fought to hold himself together. But, he did, and with Bainbridge and Little Ghost they continued to the old grey stone building that had been the Maraborg church.
Most of the celebratory groups were in the city center, waiting to light candles and hear a speech.
But this was the place Anu had promised he would take his son.
“Can we go in?” Bainbridge asked.
“I wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s safe. I’m not sure it ever was.” Anu said.
“Can we just get closer than this?” Rain asked.
Anu looked to Little Ghost. “We shouldn’t go in very far.” She said. “But I don’t see the harm in walking to the entrance.”
“Rain, this place…” Anu trailed off. It was a place of mystery for those not involved with the intimate crisis with Blight. But there, within the breaking stones, he’d nearly died. And there, Father Roderick had kept Taisho as almost a prisoner after having her parents killed. The Church of Maraborg never had anything to give, it just took.
But his son had wanted to see it. Wanted to see this part of his mother’s past. Anu led them through the dead tree roots and paved walkway of the courtyard. The front doors had long been busted down, and you could see into the gaping wound a busted iron chandelier and a scratch marks in the front hallway, marks of violence that promised more to come.
“Mom grew up here?” Rain asked. Anu nodded. Little Ghost touched a mark on the door way, something left from a sharp weapon or claw.
“This place is so dark.” She said.
“Taisho didn’t talk too much about it. But they had a library she loved. And she liked to climb the tree that was once here.” Anu left out the fact that her parents had been strung up from it. “Listen, the past, these places and things aren’t all you have of your mother. You are her, Rain.” Another siren broke the growing evening into bits and around them the ambient noise shifted. A new wind carried the death scent, and that of blood. New, fresh blood. The old world street underneath them cracked.
Anu pulled his son on top of him, trying to save him from the full force of the fall as the city collapsed into the underground tunnels of itself. He didn’t see Bainbridge or Little Ghost tumble down, and hoped they were safely above them. He hoped Little Ghost could protect Bainbridge.
The initial hit took Anu’s limited sight from him for a second, and he felt almost deaf. He kept thinking he’d been underwater, then realizing that hadn’t happened, that he could breathe if he wanted to, but it pained him so badly. He pulled the remaining strands of his makeshift mask off of his face-they were darkly blood soaked.
There were feet, bodies, everywhere. Legs, dirt-caked and oozing feral long legs moving all over. A massive shadow moved over him. Another part of the falling street, he thought, but no. It was Rain. Glistening black fur and monstrous white teeth, awe-inspiring as he watched the Afflicted try to flat-line him in their gore and fail; their limbs and heads being torn off like cheap toys. Anu tried to move, but nothing worked. So he watched. He watched Rain. His son’s eyes were red, a warning shade of red like Blight’s had been. And one his right hand, the claws and the bones attached to them were outside of the flesh, a terrifying weapon and yet sad to look upon. But, Rain, he was fearless.
There were louder footsteps. Too many of them. Something heavy, maybe even digging equipment. But no, that scent of blood. Blood of the healthy, loud with iron. So much of it his eyes watered and nothing else could be detected.
Anu knew what that was.
“RAIN!” He shouted. He was sure several of his bones had broken, his hand was gelatinized as he clawed out of the remnants of the street and the church. “Rain! Go!” But his son returned to his side and ran beneath him, knocking Anu onto his wolfen back so that he could carry him. Anu took hold gently of the lines of necklaces on Rain’s neck to keep upright.